Warnings on 'huffing' unheeded A teen whose father had cautioned him was found dead in his dorm.

Posted: February 20, 2002

Lawyer Phillip Zuber was sure his five children knew the dangers of "huffing," the practice of inhaling aerosol products to get high. A few years ago, he was involved in a case in which a teenage girl died from huffing propane.

"We used to sit around the dinner table talking about the case," Zuber said. "They knew how stupid it was."

But one of his sons wasn't listening.

Monday night, two of Justin Zuber's classmates at Academy of the New Church Secondary School in Bryn Athyn found the 16-year-old junior dead on the floor of his dorm room, a plastic bag containing a can of Glade air freshener over his head.

Although an investigation is ongoing, school officials believe that Zuber was by himself when he died, president Dan Goodenough said. Zuber, who was disabled, had his own room in Stuart Hall and had been dead for a few hours before his classmates found him, police said.

"The police believe it was accidental," Goodenough said.

About two million people between the ages of 12 and 17 have abused the household products known as inhalants, according to the 2001 National Household Survey of Drug Use. Users breathe the chemical fumes of anything from glue to cooking spray to get a high that can cause long-term side effects and even death.

The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, an advocacy organization based in Austin, Texas, records about 100 deaths a year from inhalant use, executive director Harvey Weiss said. The Philadelphia area has seen its share, including a 1999 case in which five girls from Penncrest High School, who had been huffing, died when their car hit a tree.

"Any time you use inhalants, they could prove fatal," Weiss said.

Goodenough characterized Zuber as a popular student with good grades, a positive attitude and a strong faith.

"I'm not sure what I stand for, but I guess it would be to live life the way God intended," he told his classmates during the school's 100 Nights Dinner held Feb. 16, and that was a typical sentiment from the outgoing teen, according to Goodenough.

"He was having a great year," Goodenough said.

Zuber's family has long held close ties to the academy, a girls and boys secondary school in Montgomery County that has an enrollment of 265 students - all believers in the Church of the New Jerusalem, which follows the theological writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century philosopher. Both of Zuber's parents graduated from the academy in the early 1970s, and Zuber's three older brothers attended the secondary school. The Zubers also have a young daughter. Since birth, Zuber had a hereditary condition known as multiple pterygium syndrome, a rare disorder that forces the joints into bent positions. Because Phillip Zuber sits on the academy's board of directors, school officials knew that Justin would enroll in August 2001, and they worked over the summer to make buildings and classrooms accessible for his motorized wheelchair.

As he grew up in Mitchellville, Md., Zuber never let his disability get in his way, his father said. He read voraciously, everything from science fiction to Shakespeare, and became an accomplished hammered dulcimer player.

"He never viewed himself as 'different,' " his father said. The teen took vigorous one-mile walks daily to improve his conditioning and used his wheelchair only to conserve his strength, Phillip Zuber said. "He carried himself as if he had nothing holding him back."

Zuber blossomed when he enrolled in the academy as a boarding student, his father said. He became more independent, visiting New York City with a friend one weekend, took part in talent shows and was getting ready for a Phi Alpha production. Over Christmas break, he counted the days until he could return, school officials said.

"The academy and the New Church was the greatest thing that ever happened to him," Zuber said. "Being up there gave him enough independence and freedom to spread his wings."

The death has hit the close-knit school hard.

"There've been a lot of tears, a lot of shock," Goodenough said. As word of Zuber's death spread through the campus Monday night, boarding students gathered in the Stuart Hall dining room for a brief

prayer and songs. Later, many students retired to the girls' dorm for more counseling, and where Zuber's grandmother, a Bryn Athyn resident, talked with them, Goodenough said.

While classes met yesterday as scheduled, students were allowed to leave if they wanted, and several were seen talking with faculty members on the steps of the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The adjacent college and seminary also held a memorial service.

Although an autopsy has been completed, toxicology reports will not come back for 10 days to two weeks, Montgomery County coroner Halbert Fillinger said.

Bryn Athyn police have occasionally responded to underage drinking cases at the academy, but nothing like the teen's death has happened, Police Chief Glenn Coffin said.

The school has no plans to lecture students further on the dangers of huffing, Goodenough said, as he believes Zuber's death drives the message home.

"This is going to be a very tender thing to bring up for a while," he said.

After all of those family discussions about his huffing case, Phillip Zuber never thought his children, let alone Justin, would try inhalants.

" 'It's never going to happen to me, it happens to someone else' - that's the definition of a teenager," Zuber said. "Not that Justin was that way. But he's still a teenager. He made a really bad, bad decision. And it has had horrible consequences."

Chris Gray's e-mail address is cgray@phillynews.com.

Is Your Child Huffing?

According to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, there is a common link between inhalant use and problems in school: failing grades, chronic absences and general apathy. Other signs include the following:

* Paint or stains on body or clothing.

* Spots or sores around the mouth.

* Red or runny eyes or nose.

* Chemical breath odor.

* Drunk, dazed or dizzy appearance.

* Nausea, loss of appetite.

* Anxiety, excitability, irritability.

For more information, contact the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition at:

2904 Kerbey Lane

Austin, Texas 78703

Phone: 1-800-269-4237

Web: www.inhalants.org

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